Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the midseason finale of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Hearts Still Beating.”
After eight episodes dedicated to introducing the most brutal and heartless villain in the show’s history, the seventh season of “The Walking Dead” wrapped up its first half with a group embrace among most of those who’ve survived. It was intended as an emotional moment, and it was certainly milked for every last drop of sentiment, with inspiring chords rising on the soundtrack as characters hugged and reunited and nodded at one another, joined in a tacit resolve to fight back against the tyranny of Negan and the Saviors.
But after a drawn-out season in which episodes consistently ran over time to little apparent purpose—the midseason finale itself dragged on for nearly 90 minutes including ad breaks—the sequence felt comically overwrought. This is what we waited so long for, why we slogged through so many uninspired episodes with the various characters scattered to the wind, just so they could give each other a reassuring squeeze? It wasn’t nearly worth the substantial wait, and the clunky cross-cutting of “Hearts Still Beating” seemed to confirm that the show’s writers had been just killing time rather than executing some complicated master plan.
Negan added a couple unfortunate Alexandrians to his body count: Spencer made a fatal miscalculation when he tried to convince Negan to help him overthrow Rick, and ended up literally gutless, his belly slit open with a quick slash of Negan’s knife. And poor Olivia, who spent several episodes cowering from the Saviors, finally met her end, randomly chosen for death as punishment for Rosita’s attempt to put a bullet—the only bullet she had, made from scratch by Eugene—in Negan’s skull. Instead, Rosita shot his bat, Lucille, who at this point is more engaging than many of the show’s characters, and doesn’t require nearly as much screen time.
On their own, Rosita, Michonne, Sasha, and Richard, Ezekiel’s chief deputy in the Kingdom, all came to the same conclusion: Negan must die. It got so one half-expected the episode to end with them all turning up at the Saviors’ compound at the same time. “You’re here to kill Negan? No way! I’m here to kill Negan!” But instead, through a series of clunky plot turns and murky character motivations, they turned to each other instead of striking out alone, although the Kingdom’s place in the puzzle will have to wait until the season’s second half. After eight long episodes, it feels like this story is barely getting started, and the show won’t be back for another two months.
“The Walking Dead” has been good and it has been bad, but it has never been this lifeless, so reeked of going through the motions while it stalls to figure out what to do next. What’s taken eight episodes could have been accomplished in half the time. If it had been, maybe the series wouldn’t be experiencing record losses in viewership, although it may also be that the rise of a brutal, unpredictable authoritarian figure isn’t something a little over half the country is inclined to find entertaining at this particular moment.
Although Jeffrey Dean Morgan has done his best to make Negan more than a floating miasma of dread, the character has been terribly written all season long, reduced to inexhaustible dispenser of morbid, sub-Freddy Krueger quips handcuffed by the show’s need to keep its characters threatened without doing any of the popular ones any real harm. It was implausible enough when Negan let Carl live after staging an assassination attempt; to do the same for Rosita reduces the show’s “anyone can die” ethos to rubble. Even Aaron, who was pulled under water by a horde of zombies as he and Rick approached a boat loaded with a treasure trove of supplies, miraculously emerged unscathed, although he did take a beating back at Alexandria after forgetting to dispose of a mocking note left by the boat’s former owner. (Those were, presumably, the boots of the note’s author we saw stepping into frame as Aaron and Rick offloaded the boat’s provisions, but we’ll have to wait until next year to see this new character above the ankles.) Spencer and Olivia were established characters, sure, but killing them instead of Carl or Rosita reeked of narrative cowardice: “The Walking Dead’s” writers want us to feel its main characters are in danger without actually endangering them.
The underlying theme of “Hearts Still Beating” is that the characters are lucky to be alive. “We’re still standing,” Michonne says to Rick. “What do we do with that?” The answer, of course, is fight; this isn’t a show about the power of diplomacy. But even as it maneuvers its characters into taking up arms, “The Walking Dead” is feeling like it’s given up the ghost.